Setting the Dial on Community Radio

In an era of media proliferation, where audiences are no longer defined by geography and almost anyone can broadcast to the world, what space is there for community radio? Managing Director of 2SER, Melanie Withnall, confirms why your local station is just as important as ever.

When you look back at your time spent at uni, how much of what you did has directly influenced your life today?

Image: Setting the Dial on Community Radio

As a Bachelor of Arts in Communication/International Studies (2003) graduate from UTS, I majored in filmmaking and Russian. I don't make films, and I rarely speak Russian anymore. While the skills I learnt in the degree have carried me through various jobs, it was volunteering at 2SER – a community radio station owned by UTS and Macquarie University – that really taught me the skills I needed to kick-start my career in radio.

In those student days it was impossible to imagine how much things would change in just a few years: back then, a community radio show was the only way that you could really 'broadcast yourself' to the whole city, now you can tell your stories to the world on the internet. Then, sponsors would fight to bring their message to the diverse group of 'underground' listeners on 2SER, now they can market directly via social media. Today, 2SER operates across multiple platforms to be heard on 107.3FM, digital radio, and from anywhere in the world via the internet. There is even an iPhone app on the way.

In a constantly evolving media landscape, the question for 2SER, like so many other traditional media, is how do we stay relevant? How do we build on radio's traditional strengths, and use those strengths to drive listeners to engage with us in new ways, on new platforms? How do radio presenters and brands keep their relationship with listeners strong when there is so much competition for people's attention? While I don't have all the answers, I know that radio's strengths – particularly its adaptability, credibility and portability – mean it will always play a vital role in the community.

For a station like 2SER, its value is not defined solely by the end product – it's not just about producing a unique radio experience for our audience – but about our responsibility in fostering the next generation of talent. For 32 years, 2SER has been a training ground for thousands of students, giving them invaluable real-world on-air experience that they couldn't get at most other stations. 2SER has been where successes such as 702's Robbie Buck and ABC Foreign Correspondent Matt Brown learnt the ropes. While we continue to help the stars of tomorrow get their foot in the door, community radio's contribution isn't limited to supporting new journalists, producers and presenters. At 2SER we offer opportunities for students studying across many disciplines, such as business, engineering and marketing, to develop their skills.

Returning to community radio to become the new MD of 2SER in April this year after working at the ABC and in the commercial sector, I realised how diverse the stories were compared to other media. Community radio truly provides a multiplicity of voices in the media landscape. It's able to resist following the traditional news cycle, instead seeking out the untold or quirky stories – it's still the place where young bands get their start, and community groups have easy access.

In our station programming, 2SER uncovers music or subject matter that won't find a home anywhere else. 1920s dance tunes? Listen to the Phantom Dancer. A segment called The G-Spot about improving women's sex lives? Listen to the award winning Double X on Wednesday mornings. Where media ownership is becoming less diversified, community media provides a safeguard – giving members of the community a chance to make programs, not just contribute to them via talkback or a blog post.

2SER's ability to champion unique and different voices, shed light on social and community issues, and provide opportunities for students to get real practical experience is what makes it more than just a radio station. It's also why more than 300 volunteers dedicate their time each year to keep the station running; less than 5% of the people that work at 2SER are in paid positions.

Our challenge for the future is not only going to be about adapting and changing to keep up with audience demand, but continuing to do what we do best, all the while using limited resources to get the best possible result.

As a non-commercial station, 2SER relies on the support of subscribers and its university partners to stay on air. Good training, staff and equipment cost money. Click here to find out how you can ensure 2SER's place in the future and help support the next generation of committed volunteers to bring you great music, interesting conversations, stories and ideas.